The Process

Now that we know what it is we are supposed to be doing with respect to our lighting goals, let us discuss the process involved.

Know the Material

Boy, that may seem simple, but if you do not know the play, dance, piece of artwork, etc. that you are lighting, then you are doing it blindly.  How can you effectively design something without knowing what it is about?  Understanding whether the performer needs to be in the shaft of light, or hiding from it, is to understand what the scene is “about.” You have to “know” the piece to understand the intent of the scene, and what this theatrical moment is supposed to mean to the audience.  If you cannot hold a conversation with the rest of the artistic team about all facets of the piece, you do not know it well enough.


Get to know the piece even more.  Find out its history.  Look at images from other productions.  There should be nothing about that piece that you do not know.  Directors find it extremely frustrating to work with a Lighting Designer who does not have a clue about the project on which they are collaborating.  I feel no shame in visiting YouTube to see postings of other productions.  I don’t use it to steal ideas but to inspire my own ideas.  Did you see something that had a good idea but could be done stronger?  Did you see something done with some technology that has been improved and you can do so?

Have a Production Meeting

Here we start to get into the details of the show.  Once everyone has a good idea of what the piece is about, and what style will be used to support the story, it is time to sit down, have a meeting, and really discuss how it will be done.  Then, each department goes to their individual studio and begins to plan out their work.  They will reconvene later to share what they have been working on, and what they will be doing.

Write a Concept / Outline

This is a step in which different designers start differently.  Some write a formal, conceptual document aptly named a “Concept .”  I believe it is a wonderful, educational, tool that takes the information from the above steps and puts them down on paper.  This helps to organize the thoughts of the Lighting Designer.

Here is an example of how a Concept would be set up:

The first paragraph states concisely and simply what the piece is about. It is not a plot synopsis. Make sure you understand the intention of the author.  What is the message that he/she is trying to get across.  It’s not just the story – it’s what the story is trying to illustrate.

The second paragraph describes the environment.

The third paragraph describes the style in which the environment is being created.

The fourth paragraph chooses an image to base the design on.  For example, a classic image for A Street Car Named Desire is that of a butterfly turning into a moth, which visually symbolizes how Blanche changes from a colorful and delicate creature into a colorless, frail one.  It shows movement in color, texture and story telling.

The fifth paragraph then describes how the light is going to support all of the above.

This is a tool to organize your ideas.  Do not get caught up on technically how this document should be or how it should look.  It is for you.  It is a great way to not get lost.

Write a Lighting Scene Synopsis

Going act by act, scene by scene, write down every environment and time of day that is required to tell the story.  Note any special lighting needs that are dictated by the script.

Mark the script for Cue Placement: mark each place in the script that you know must have a lighting change with a “Q” for a cue.  Do not number it yet.  There will be plenty of additions.  You are now looking for the “must have’s” that are inherent in the script.

Create a “Need” List: make a list of every lighting need.  For example, “I need daylight outside”, “I need sunset outside”, “I need a kitchen light in the kitchen”, “I need a light in the fridge”, “I need a campfire effect in the forest”, and so on, until each specific need is listed.

Collaborate Again

Check in with everyone and see what they are doing.  Check out the direction of the color palette of the show, as far as costumes and set design is concerned.  I hope that by this point you will receive preliminary scenic plans from the Set Designer.  What does he or she envision the set looks like?  What specific needs might he or she need fulfilled?  Quite often, there are very specific lighting needs to bring a set to fruition.  Discuss with the Scenic Designer if there are any special needs such as placing lights in hidden places, or maintaining access to a light that a set piece is blocking.  Make compromises to best suit the end look of the production.


If there is a rehearsal available to see, go often.  Run-throughs of sections or acts are the most useful, but may not always be feasible.  The rehearsal schedule is not going to be built around the needs of the Lighting Designer.  View what you can, when you can.

Create Paperwork for the Electrician

Communicate your technical needs to the folks that are going to help create it.  There are many fancy names for “who is who,” but we can keep it simple.  You are the Lighting Designer and you will be supplying paperwork to the Production Electrician, who will then disseminate the information to others.  Generally, these two positions are separate.  Early in a person’s career, or in circumstances where the budget is very low, the two positions may combine.  There are two good reasons to avoid this.  The first is that different and separate talents make a good designer and a good technician.  Even though he or she might not yet know how to accomplish it, the designer must come up with the greatest idea of what will make that scene the best it can possibly be.  A great electrician probably will hear the idea and either achieve it then, or will mostly likely figure it out with a little thinking time.  I loved when I had the most intelligent electricians working with me.  I was not intimidated by their knowledge, or scared that they were after my job.  We had distinct but equal talents, complimentary to each other.

Draw Your Light Plot/Section

A light plot is the ground plan schematic that places individual lights where you want them.  In short, it illustrates where the lights need to be placed or mounted.  The section is the side view that shows the heights of the units.  You will draw and work with these drawings at the same time.  Back in the day, light plots were all drawn by hand.  Thankfully, computers have become the pencil, and we now have faster and more efficient tools.

Data Input and Such

It may sound silly to say “and such” because now that we input our information about each light into computer programs, the computer sorts the information and gives us all of the other reports we once did manually.  The main piece of information to input is the Channel Hook-Up, which is a listing of each channel specifying the following information: what lights will be used, their color, their purpose, their wattage, their type, and any other special data.

Pass on Your Paperwork to the Electrician or Producer

Once you have completed the aforementioned steps, it is time to hand in your paperwork to the Lighting Electrician.  Often, the Electrician and the Producer have to do a cost analysis on your design, which you (of course) created, keeping the budget and list of equipment in mind.  In a Broadway situation, all of the equipment is going to be rented.  A bid must be sent out, and negotiations must be made.  Expect that you will be asked to make some budget cuts.  Be smart – agree to cuts that are less significant, while refraining from cutting equipment that plays a key role in the production.  You were hired to make sure that the lighting is used to its full potential.  I know Designers that often put some extra equipment in their initial design for the simple act of cutting it, in order to ensure the essential equipment is provided.

Watch Run-Throughs

Watching run-throughs is the best thing you can do so that you can get a sense of timing, where the action is going to be, where the points of focus need to be, and where your lights and where your lighting cues need to be improved or revised.  Make notes in your script as you go.  I like to begin to number my cues at this point in the process, and I make a separate list of what the cues are for.  Fundamentally, I have a script that a Stage Manager could use to call the show before the future cueing session even begins.

Attend the Load-In

If your show is a time-sensitive one that has to be loaded in (and set up) quickly, then it is best if you are in attendance.  Problems arise, and you may have to make a design choice due to an unforeseen circumstance.  If the load in process is long and you are unable to attend or are not needed right away, then you should be available by cell phone and be able to come in if need be.

Focus the Show

Now that the set is in place and the lights are working, turn off the work lights and focus the show.  Stand on stage and direct where the lights go and how they are to be focused.  Run as many focusers as you can and still do the job correctly.  This is a costly time for the Producer.  The more efficient you are, the more popular you will be to the person writing your check.

Make a Magic Sheet

This is a quick guide, personal to you, that helps you find the channel numbers to the specific purposes that the lights are creating.  Some folks use a list, while I like to draw little ground plans.  Everyone comes up with their own notations that let them find their ideas quickly.  Keep in mind that nothing is worse than waiting for someone to find the light while cueing.  I like to draw a ground plan of the stage and then make notes on that ground plan as to a color, or a texture of light that is coming from a direction with an arrow and then its channel number next to the arrow and description.  This lets me look at the magic sheet and quickly see what channel I need to pull up for something like the “Fire Place” or “Moonlight thru Window”.

Fix During Run-Through

Adjust and massage the lighting until it is just right.  During run-throughs, you must remember two things.  First, be careful not to interrupt or speak over the stage manager at an inappropriate time.  If you do need to stop to work on a complicated spot, make sure you pre-arrange this with whoever is running the rehearsal.  “People skills”, “people skills”. . . we all need “people skills”!   As you work with collaborators over and over again, people skills will become second nature.  While I have worked with probably about 100 directors, there are five of them that I have worked with recurrently.  I loved working on those shows!  We knew each other, and understood the “good times” to speak up, and when not to.  Cueing a show can be very stressful.  Keep your cool, be respectful and in return, hopefully those around you will likewise respect the pressure you are under.  Secondly, do not put anyone on stage in darkness unless they know about it.  There will be times that it is essential for the stage to go to “black”.  Be careful. Make sure everyone is aware and will not get hurt when you do this.

Attend Opening Night

It is great to see the audience’s reaction to your work, and to be able to help work through any glitches that might arise (either of the technical or the human kind).  In addition, it is vitally important to your reputation that you cared enough to be there.

My personal goal in doing shows is to make the best compositions I can, that support the story, with as little stress for me and those around me.  Since this is not an easy business in which to earn a living, it is important to your career that people want to re-hire you. By following the above steps and putting them into practice, you have the opportunity to become a highly desired Lighting Designer.

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